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Tom LXIII, numer 2 – 2015

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rf.2015.63.2-2





In recent years a number of remarkable publications have appeared, which lay considerable emphasis on the importance of a broadly conceived allegorical interpretation in Ancient literature. This approach to literary texts, stressing their deeper and more elusive layer of meaning, is represented, among others, by Peter T. Struck’s book Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the

Limits of Their Texts. “Poetic texts” is more than just a linguistic utterance:

But a few bold souls, ancient as well as modern, have it in mind that poetry will do something more for us. They suspect that the poets’ stories might say more than they appear to say, and that their language might be more than just words.

[…] Some go further and take poetry as a vehicle into a region where more sober minds fear to tread, where the limitations and encumbrances of our regular lives do not exist, and where we might meet, finally face to face, the deathless gods themselves. This realm is familiar to most of us, as a superstition or a moment of insight. It lies just beyond the always receding horizon that circumscribes our dayto-day existence.1 Allegorical interpretation tries to penetrate beyond the superficial aspects of a literary text; the text itself is treated as a riddle, a revelation, whose role is to take the reader along to a deeper domain of meaning, to a very special kind of knowledge, a knowledge concealed form the profane eyes of the “uninitiated.” The language of the text subjected to allegorical interpretation acquires Prof. dr hab. AGNIESZKA KIJEWSKA – kierownik Katedry Historii Filozofii Starożytnej i Średniowiecznej w Instytucie Filozofii Teoretycznej na Wydziale Filozofii KUL; adres do korespondencji: Al. Racławickie 14, 20-950 Lublin; e-mail: agat@kul.lublin.pl Peter T. STRUCK, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 1.


another dimension and a twofold function: it both “reveals” and “conceals”; in a paradoxical unity of two mutually opposed functions, it “conceals by revealing.” This ambiguity of the signifying function of the language of a literary text is hardly acceptable to the orthodox semantic approach to language: ever since Aristotle and the rhetorical tradition originated by him, ambiguity has been regarded as disqualifying a text (Cf. Poetics 1458a).

The problem of the interpretation of literary text has recently been taken up in Polish literature by Mikołaj Domaradzki in a number of articles and above all in his book Filozofia antyczna wobec problemu interpretacji. Rozwój alegorezy od przedsokratyków do Arystotelesa (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Instytutu Filozofii UAM, 2013). The author discusses various devices of ancient rhetoric: allegory, hyponoia (conjecture, guess), ainigma (riddle), symbolon (symbol) and steers towards the conclusion that it is precisely figurative language that makes it possible to go beyond the realm of meaning that can be captured by our ordinary language in its literal application into the realm transcending the ordinary; and it is for that reason that the privileged areas of application of figurative language have been religion and philosophy, in particular religiously oriented philosophy.2 „Allegorists,” Struck writes, “uniquely among classical readers, see in poetry the promise of conveying complete and fundamental truth. […] allegorism reveals the literary-critical impact of one of the best-attested popular views of the poets, that the poet is a kind of prophet.”3 Given this perspective, it is hardly surprising that allegory and allegorical interpretation should acquire paramount importance in Platonism in general, and in Neoplatonism in particular, the current of thought seeking to attribute religious functions to philosophy, in fact, to represent philosophy as the true religion, that is as the means by which man can be reunited with the divine.

It is enough to mention just a few characteristic themes, such as the ethical ideal of becoming like God and the idea of return to primal unity which is the true home of man. Nevertheless, as Deirdre Carabine stresses, “the return of all things to the One, conceived either in individual or in cosmic terms, does not have to leave a causal metaphysical scheme in place behind it, since there is no longer any need for this.”4 Cf. Mikołaj DOMARADZKI, Filozofia antyczna wobec problemu interpretacji. Rozwój alegorezy od przedsokratyków do Arystotelesa (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Instytutu Filozofii UAM, 2013), 21 f.

STRUCK, Birth of the Symbol, 4.

Deirde CARABINE, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena (Louvain: Peeters, 1995), 104.


Neoplatonist philosophers, in developing their theory of allegory as grounded in the very structure of reality, had ample material to build upon, notably the earlier conceptions of Plato and the Stoics.5 The salient characteristics of the Neoplatonist approach to allegory have been captured by Peter Struck in his article Allegory and ascent in Neoplatonism. In what immediately follows I will attempt to give a synthetic representation of the features of the Neoplatonist approach to allegory conceived as a form of ascent, laying stress on the points that will subsequently be of use in presenting the specific features of Eriugena’s re-working of the classical theme of cosmic exile and return to paradise. Discussing Plotinus’s treatment of mythical narrative, Struck states: “Myth gives Plotinus a means by which he can express synchronic realities in a diachronic narrative form.”6 (1) Thus one characteristic of allegory that first comes to mind is that it makes possible a translation from timelessness to synchrony; owing to allegory reality, which by its essence lacks any sequence, can be expressed and grasped sequentially, in a discourse, description, or narrative.

(2) Essential to the Neoplatonist’s conception of allegory is the fundamental insight that the physical world has another, hidden aspect; in fact, visible appearances are but superficial manifestations of a more substantial reality.7 (3) However, there is an invisible ontological connection between beings that appear to our experience and their profound ontological source; this connection provides the foundation for semantic structures and relations.

Following Plotinus, this underlying unity of the essential and the apparent was viewed as grounded in the conception of creative outflow (proodos)8.

(4) Inseparable from the Neoplatonist’s discussion of allegory is the pervading presence of paradox: “…the One as an entirely transcendent entity that also still (somehow) manifests itself in visible, tangible, concrete reaCf. Peter T. STRUCK, “Allegory and ascent in Neoplatonism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Allegory, ed. Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 57-58: „Plato’s understanding of appearances had always insisted on some higher, unfallen level of reality, in which the forms dwell, and to which we have no access through our senses […]. The Neoplatonists of late antiquity carry forward the Stoic ideas that myth might be a repository of profound truth, and that the dense language of poetry has the capacity to convey truths that exceeded the grasp of plain speech.” Ibid., 58.

Cf. ibid., 59. The structure of this description of Neoplatonic exegesis is mine.

Cf. ibid. Struck uses the term “emanation.” About the Neoplatonic roots of the term and its meaning in Eriugena, cf. Stephen GERSH, From Iamblichus to Eriugena: An Investigation of the Prehistory and Evolution of the Pseudo-Dionysian Tradition (Leiden: BRILL, 1978), 17–18.


lity, sets out a paradox that is a natural incubator of allegorical thinking. It will give impetus and provide an authoritative parallel to an allegorical habit of claiming that allegorical literary constructions render the transcendent in the concrete, and use language to express what is beyond language.”9 (5) Since the ultimate objective of human life is return to and perfect union with the Source, allegory is integrated in the process of coming back as a means to that eschatological end: “allegorical reading itself might offer a kind of pathway for this ascent, and that hermeneutic activity might lift one up through ontological layers, anagogically, toward the One. Plotinus produces a new and powerful possibility for understanding figuration according to a logic of synecdoche, as opposed to imitation.”10 (6) This metaphysically and epistemologically grounded conception of allegory underwent further development in Porphyry, who elaborated specific methods of interpreting literary texts and applied these to reading the Homeric poems. Some elements of his method were: (a) looking for parallels to one part of the interpreted text in other parts of the author’s work, (b) ample use of etymology, and (c) invoking associations with cultural and philosophical themes informing the cultural consciousness of his time, which meant referring both to classical authorities and natural knowledge.11 (7) The philosophy of Proclus brought to culmination the mystical and magical elements found in the Chaldean Oracles and in Iamblichus and thus it combines allegory with theurgy. According to Struck „Both theurgist and poet reverse the process of emanation, and open up an avenue by which we might retrace the ontological movement that produced the universe back up from material to divine. An anagogical reading is now emphatically possible, an interpretation itself takes on a role in the soteriological aspirations of souls.”12 It is this Proclean re-structuring of the legacy of philosophical and religious thought of Neoplatonism that was passed on, via Pseudo-Dionysius, to the early Middle Ages and John Scotus Eriugena, to form the foundation of Eriugena’s own elaboration of the theme of allegory.13 STRUCK, “Allegory and ascent in Neoplatonism,” 59.


Cf. ibidem, 61.

Ibidem, 68.

Paul Rorem remarks: “Using the explicit language of proceeding from and returning to the same source and goal, Eriugena here isolates the entire purpose (intentio) of the Dionysian corpus. His thorough appropriation of this dynamic of procession and return, exitus and reditus, descending pluralization and ascending unification, is evident in the structure of his own ‘summa’


By following Eriugena’s reading of the Biblical narrative of the expulsion from Paradise, I would like to show the way his treatment of the Biblical text realizes the essential points of the Neoplatonic conception of allegory. One could say (slightly modifying the title of Peter Struck’s article Allegory and Ascent) that for Eriugena allegory is ascent, ascent which is the return to the Origin/Source. This conception, Neoplatonic in its essence, comes in combination with the Patristic idea of the four levels of meaning in Holy Scripture.14 Eriugena’s Irish upbringing inculcated in him appreciation of the importance of the literal meaning of the Biblical text as the indispensable point of departure of all subsequent interpretations. In his commentary on St. John’s Gospel Eriugena calls this level of interpretation the “letter” (littera) or “sacred history.”15 Indispensable as it is, the letter has to be exceeded in an effort to win the spiritual understanding of the Scriptures. This point in made in Eriugena’s comments on Christ’s words uttered in the Nicodemus scene: “The letter kills, the spirit gives life.” Eriugena develops the idea, adding that the letter kills when we read it and fail to comprehend its meaning; it gives life when read and understood.16 An element of Eriugena’s biblical exegesis that is distinctive of his method is the use he makes of the distinction between mystery (sacramentum) and symbol (symbolum).17 In his Commentary on the St. John Gospel he explains that by “mystery” we should understand “allegory of actions and words”: in other words, mystery concerns the historical order of events and of philosophical theology, the Periphyseon, as often noted.” Paul ROREM, “The Early Latin Dionysius: Eriugena and Hugh of St. Victor,” in Re-thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, ed. Sarah Coakley and Charles M. Stang (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 73.

Cf. Denys TURNER, “Allegory in Christian late antiquity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Allegory, 71 f. Cf. Henri DE LUBAC, Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture, vol. 1 (Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1959), 178 f.

Cf. ERIUGENA, Homilia et Commentarius in Euangelium Iohannis [further: Hom. and Com.], III, 5, 320 B, ed. Edouard A. Jeauneau, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, 166 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 87: “Littera est factum quod sancta narrat historia”. Cf. ERIUGENA, Periphyseon. Liber quintus [further: PP V], 935D, ed. Edouard A. Jeauneau, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, 165 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), 106.

Cf. Com. III, 4, 318 B p. 83: “‘Littera occidit, spiritus autem vivificat’. Lex enim lecta et non intellecta occidit, lecta vero et intellecta vivificat.” Cf. Jean PÉPIN, “Mysteria et Symbola dans le Commentaire de Jean Scot sur l’évangile de saint Jean,” in The Mind of Eriugena, ed. John J. O’Meara and Ludwig Bieler (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1973), 16-30; Agnieszka KIJEWSKA, “Eriugena’s Idealist Interpretation of Paradise,” in Eriugena, Berkeley, and the Idealist Tradition, ed. Stephen Gersh and Dermot Moran (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2006), 169.


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